'To Pimp a Butterfly' Is Just the Latest Phase of Kendrick Lamar's Musical Evolution

Once again, Kendrick Lamar is advancing the culture.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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The release of "i" opened a deep chasm within the hip-hop community last September. Augmenting his voice, Kendrick Lamar preached confidence and self-assurance over a groovy Isley Brothers sample. Those thirsting for another "Swimming Pools" were not enchanted by his message, lampooning the song as corny and suggesting that his next album had the potential to be a "fake deep" failure. Around the same time, Kendrick told this very publication that he wasn’t focused on duplicating or topping his brilliant major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city.

"If I keep focusing on, 'I need to make something better than good kid,' it’s going to be just that," he explained. "That’s not challenging yourself. I don’t want to become that person reflecting on what has been done. What I’m doing now is the question. I’m only as good as my last word, my last hook, my last bridge." With To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar has given himself a dramatic musical makeover. It indicates that he’s realized what many other successful artists before him have picked up on: Reinvention is the key to longevity.

Anyone who’s followed Kendrick Lamar since his breakthrough at the beginning of the decade should recognize that the Compton native embraces variation. Each of his releases are more than a new chapter; they’re an entirely different novel. Take 2009’s Kendrick Lamar EP, his reintroduction to the world after dropping the "K-Dot" moniker. The project began with him recalling his origins as a rapper over a spooky Angela McCluskey sample, and paired soulful tracks like "Wanna Be Heard," "Faith," and "Far From Here" with the raucous "I Do This" and muffled though percussive "Vanity Slaves." Its sound was largely hip-hop, but its successor would suggest Lamar’s desire to flirt with other genres. 

he’s realized what many other successful artists before him have picked up on: Reinvention is the key to longevity.

After using the Kendrick Lamar EP as a platform for reestablishment, Kendrick offered a simonized version of himself on Overly Dedicated. The intense poetry aura of "The Heart Pt. 2" was an attention-grabber, preparing listeners for the stripped-down "Night of the Living Junkies." "Alien Girl (Today With Her)" had an ethereal, spaced-out element, while the abrasive "Michael Jordan" was like a demonic drill command to mosh. "Average Joe" was characterized by the West Coast funk of a late-aughts LaToiya Williams record. On "Heaven & Hell," he delivered rapid-fire observations about societal ills over beautiful, double-time percussion before his vocals faded out, leaving listeners with only the instrumentation. Overly Dedicated was a huge step forward for Kendrick. It dabbled in other forms of music, yet was still rooted in hip-hop. Refusing to rehash old ground, his next work took a tangential route to elevate his career to the next plateau. 

Section.80, his independent album, was released midway through 2011. Playing on the 2012 end-of-the-world theories, it had a conspicuous post-apocalyptic vibe. Kendrick, in turn, was the leader of a renegade faction: the "dysfunctional bastards of the Ronald Reagan era." It was the ADHD generation’s manifesto, and like the generation’s roving attention span, it was all over the place. "Hol’ Up" and "Rigamortis" were driven by horns; "Tammy’s Song (Her Evils)" was fleeting and sinister thanks to a bass line that loomed in the background like the Grim Reaper. That was immediately followed by "Chapter Six," a Jill Scott-esque departure separating the previous track from the confrontational snares of "Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils)." Section.80 was also the HiiiPoWer stage of Kendrick’s career, marked by the revolutionary spirit that defined the entire album. Hence why the decision to make "HiiiPoWeR" the lead single was clearly a calculated one. Overall, Section.80 was an arresting precursor to the genius of good kid, m.A.A.d city, a concept album in its own right that still represented another stop on the winding road of Kendrick Lamar’s journey. 

good kid, m.A.A.d city was even more specific than its predecessor. Section.80 told the story of Kendrick Lamar’s generation; good kid told Kendrick Lamar’s personal story. Skits were used in a cinematic fashion to advance a narrative authenticated by its sound. The album was a slice-of-life examination of a day in Compton, so it was necessary for the music to mirror that. "Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe" soared to a euphoric peak, and the absence of snares gave "Real" a dream-like sway, but GKMC still possessed a clear hip-hop aesthetic. "Backseat Freestyle," "Money Trees," the bipolar "good kid" and "m.A.A.d city," and the album’s summation, "Compton," all had that unmistakable slap. Still, he managed to eclipse Section.80 through the masterful execution of an album that followed a three-act structure born of his willingness to push himself creatively. 

Artists can burn themselves out attempting to replicate albums that earn the critical acclaim and commercial success that good kid, m.A.A.d city achieved. But Kendrick left that album in 2012, and to get to the next level, he made a hard left-turn with To Pimp a Butterfly.

Each Kendrick Lamar album is a departure from what came before, but To Pimp a Butterfly is a desperate sprint away from it all. Rather than create it within the confines of hip-hop’s stencil, he went outside of the lines. "King Kunta" mixes an obvious James Brown influence with the West Coast twang of DJ Quik’s boardwork from the early ’​90s. The album version of "i" employs a live music feel, and Kendrick sounds like a young Stokely Carmichael reciting the lyrics to the Isley Brothers’ "Harvest for the World" at a black power rally. The coup de grâce is a verse spit a capella where he cleans the word "nigga" like he’s extracting gold from raw ore. 

Each Kendrick Lamar album is a departure from what came before, but To Pimp a Butterfly is a desperate sprint away from it all.

Jazz floats in the background of To Pimp a Butterfly like it’​s soundtracking a Spike Lee joint. While it, and the album's contagious funk influences, have been discussed in detail, To Pimp a Butterfly’s true revelation is the way in which Kendrick uses his own voice as an instrument. His spoken word slick talk matches the up-tempo pace of the "For Free" interlude, triggering feelings of the frenetic bop heard in Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. He’s altered his voice in the past, using it to portray other characters as he did on "Swimming Pools," or to convey the sense of urgency heard on "m.A.A.d city," but he’s never done it more frequently or effectively than he does on this album. Check the guilt-ridden "u" for evidence.    

Everyone wants to pinpoint the differences between To Pimp a Butterfly and the rest of his catalog, but the album serves as hard evidence of how far he’s come. The animated inflection in his vocals on "Hood Politics" makes his "Don’t wuwwy!" screams from "Michael Jordan" seem juvenile. The unharnessed rage of "The Blacker the Berry" is light years ahead of the militant stance he took on "HiiiPoWeR." The fluid beat changes on "Institutionalized" and "Hood Politics" are touches you wouldn't hear in his earlier music. Tunnel vision would limit the scope of a project as immense as To Pimp a Butterfly, which exceeds even good kid in terms of ambition. In challenging himself, Kendrick challenged listeners, as well as hip-hop’s status quo. This cavalier artist’s heart is why comparisons to another intrepid musician are once again being thrown around.

To Pimp a Butterfly has aggressively revived the juxtaposition of Kendrick Lamar and Andre 3000 as kindred radicals. Both are Geminis, a zodiac sign characterized by restlessness. Furthermore, they’re bound by eccentricities, be they vocal acrobatics or the willingness to gamble in pursuit of progression. As part of OutKast, Andre took creative leaps between albums. The biggest came between ATLiens and Aquemini, then Stankonia and The Love Below, his own solo debut packaged as a double-album with Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx. Just as Aquemini and The Love Below employed an array of musical styles different from the projects that preceded them, To Pimp a Butterfly blends the artistic flair of Overly Dedicated with the strict focus of Section.80

Reinvention is indeed a key ingredient in the recipe for longevity. That’s not to say that long-standing musical prosperity can’t be achieved by remaining in a familiar lane, but, historically, the greats have done it by tweaking their sound between projects and setting precedent. Madonna becomes a new artist on every single album. Prince’s 1999 and Around the World in a Day are vastly different from the album between them: Purple Rain, the jewel of his catalog. Michael Jackson sought an even bigger audience than Off the Wall yielded, and he found it with Thriller. There’s a distinct aspiring reach that differentiates the Smashing PumpkinsSiamese Dream from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the latter being Billy Corgan's deliberate swipe at the crown.

Hell, even Jay Z does it. He wouldn’t have become the "immaculate conception of rappers-slash-hustlers" if he were still rhyming at high speed, exclusively. Both of the initial Blueprint albums are different from each other, The Black Album, and everything after. Furthermore, Kanye West took a similarly dramatic approach to recreating himself through Yeezus, and to Pimp a Butterfly is more polished and socially relevant. Like Yeezus, To Pimp a Butterfly has become a powder keg due to the experimental path Kendrick has chosen. 

Like YeezusTo Pimp a Butterfly has become a powder keg due to the experimental path Kendrick has chosen.

While it’s smoother than the discordant Yeezus and has earned rave reviews, To Pimp a Butterfly has left some listeners feeling betrayed. Albums like To Pimp a Butterfly, Yeezus, The Love Below, and even Common’s "Hold up, what the fuck?!" moment, Electric Circus, have proven to separate music fans from mere hip-hop fans. Aware of this, Kendrick Lamar is attacking that gap. We live in an era of musical diversity, so criticizing artists for embracing that rings a bit basic. It’s fair to expect a certain level of quality from an artist, yet unrealistic and perhaps even unreasonable to expect them to deliver the same project repeatedly.

Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t be celebrated if all of his films were Pulp Fiction retreads. Paul Thomas Anderson wouldn’t be highly regarded if he made Boogie Nights more than once. There’s no law mandating that albums be universally accepted, and differences of opinion add texture to music discussions, but you look funny under the light when faulting an artist like Kendrick Lamar for not making the same album twice.

With To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar has become the social worker who pushes his G-Wagon through the 'hood while telling stories of the outside world. The soundtrack for these cautionary tales is a multitude of sounds, from the rebellious soul of James Brown, to the acidic funk of George Clinton, and the infectious jazz of a Spike Lee film. The great artists, the ones whose company Lamar wants to join, have survived the times through musical adaptation. The fact that he’s recognized this and selected a bold eclectic fusion in his quest to advance the culture should be celebrated. good kid, m.A.A.d city, like the rest of Kendrick Lamar’s discography, is now the past. Like all albums, it represents a moment in time. Time moves forward, as do artists' careers, should they continue to evolve.

Julian Kimble is cool with music sounding "different." Follow him on Twitter @JRK316.

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